This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 29th June 2014
It’s a funny thing. I came out of Calvary none too keen on the film, let me tell you. And yet when I came to reread my notes, scribbled in the dark but nonetheless a reliable record of my contemporaneous feeling, it turns out there’s plenty to recommend it.
And so I find it often is with the films of those McDonagh lads, Martin and John. That Martin, he’s a clever one – a playwright, you know! You can tell, with his films In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths – full of witticisms, they are, and so smart in how they present seemingly thug-like characters as actually having souls. If you believe in souls, that is.
As for that John Michael – he must be the elder brother from the look of him – well, he started as a screenwriter but seems to have jumped on his brother’s directing bandwagon, casting Brendan Gleeson (you know – the large, serious one from In Bruges) in his own feature debut three years ago, The Guard. Well, he’s back. They both are, John Michael and that Brendan Gleeson. Except Gleeson’s a village priest now, not a hired killer, and this time it’s his life that’s in danger. Honestly, you wouldn’t read about it.
It’s true. Gleeson’s priest is taking confession one morning and is quietly startled to have his life threatened by someone with a grievance against the Catholic Church. It’s not nice, I tell you – if McDonagh wanted to shock us in the opening scene, he certainly manages to with some very unsavoury talk. Most unpleasant, and frankly quite unnecessary. But Father Lavelle takes it on the chin, agreeing to meet the mystery avenger “Sunday week, on the beach”. It’s nice at least that the would-be killer gives him time to put his affairs in order and “make peace with God”.
And so it goes on for a week, as we watch Father Lavelle reengage with his daughter (a suitably low-key performance from that lovely Kelly Reilly) and keep up his parish duties, seemingly resigned to his fate. Despite having seen him play many a gangster and use some quite colourful language in his time, Gleeson makes a lovely priest, he does. He knows his congregants by name, and makes ever such an effort to sort out their problems.
As ever, he doesn’t crack a smile but he’s funny, that Gleeson! He accuses the altar boy of siphoning the communion wine, citing “the depths of your Machiavellian chicanery”. That’s very McDonagh, that kind of talk. In fact, it’s the frequent commentary on language and life that peppers the script which stands this film out as a bit special. And the story does deal with the central dilemma quite well, giving Father Lavelle a few dark nights of the soul but keeping him real. That’s more than can be said for his mates in the pub, though –what a bunch of no-hopers! Not a decent man among them, and that Aidan Gillen (isn’t he in that Game of Thrones now?) is just a nasty piece of work. It does make it difficult to care a hoot what happens to anyone, I must say.
So by the end, I did wonder what it’s all for – I mean, is it meant to be a Whowilldoit? What’s the film saying? Not a whole lot that I can tell. To be sure, there’s some of the most beautiful music you’ll hear anywhere, and goodness there’s a very moving scene with a French widow. But it’s a bit mixed up, is Calvary. “Tonally uneven”, you might say. He did a nice job, that John Michael, but it left me feeling a bit out of sorts. You may just have to see it for yourself.